English teacher Jana Bailey held up three fingers in front of her seniors at Redlands East Valley High School. She wanted to emphasize the number of years the state will hold a university-level financial aid package while students attend community college.
"So if it takes you five years to graduate from community college, that's too long. They're going to take it away," she explained patiently, as her 18 students studied the baffling financial aid forms on their desks.
"Oh, I get it," said 17-year-old Brian D'Ambra. "I was confused."
"That's why we are doing this together," Bailey replied.
Bailey decided this year to walk her students through the applications, after realizing that too many were missing out on sorely needed money for college because they were not applying.
Her efforts are being replicated across the state, as hundreds of volunteers gear up to assist students and their parents in filling out the dreaded forms over the next few weeks.
In Los Angeles, more than 350 college financial aid experts, accountants, and business, education, labor and community leaders will gather Saturday for Free Cash for College day at 32 area high schools from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
They will counsel students and parents on how to attain some of the $90 billion in grants and loans available in the U.S. this year and focus on the state's underutilized Cal Grant awards.
The next day, California College Goal Sunday will kick off, with nearly 500 volunteers expected to launch a month of similar workshops on high school and college campuses. The statewide campaign started last year and reached 5,000 California students in a month.
The California Student Aid Commission has sent out packets and instructional videos to high schools around the state, including Redlands East Valley, to encourage them to teach financial aid sessions in time for the March 2 state aid deadline and March 3 federal deadline.
"We're very concerned that students are unaware of financial aid opportunities available to go to college," said David Levy, assistant director of financial aid at Caltech, who is helping coordinate Saturday's Los Angeles workshop.
"They're overwhelmed by what they think is the complexity of the form. People see all these little numbers and think it is more confusing than doing their taxes."
Financial analysts say the forms for free application for federal student aid can be more complicated than tax forms because of questions about income and assets. As a result of such confusion and processing problems at the state agency handling the grants, the number of Cal Grant scholarships has fallen short of the program's goals in the past and unspent funds have been returned to the state treasury. But last year, the number of Cal Grants awarded to high school seniors doubled to about 61,000, and more are expected this year.
In Bailey's class, students asked such questions as: What is an asset ceiling? Are you considered dependent on your parents if you have a job? And, how do we know our family income?
Redlands East Valley High student D'Ambra said he probably would never have completed a financial aid form had his teacher not required it as an assignment.
He wants to attend Chaffey College to study technology or automotives. His father is a truck driver, his mother a laundry room supervisor, and they don't earn enough to pay for his tuition while supporting his two siblings. So lessons on financial aid are worthwhile, he said.
"Pretty much all of it is confusing to me," he said. "Nobody in my family has gone to college; I would be the first one. So my parents probably wouldn't be able to help me. They wouldn't know what to put down."
It is crucial for California students to take advantage of available aid, especially because tuition costs are rising and the economy is soft, said Thomas J. Kane, a professor of policy studies and economics at UCLA.
Kane said adults need to encourage students not to flood the labor market during these times of job shortages across the state. Instead, they should be taking time to develop their skills, he said.
"The labor market has changed. The gap in earnings between college graduates and high school graduates is much wider than ever before," he said. "It used to be, if you had a high school degree, there were lots of manufacturing jobs that would pay you a decent wage, but that's increasingly not true anymore."
California students are in an advantageous situation, he said, since Gov. Gray Davis and the Legislature expanded the Cal Grant program in 2000. Now any student who has at least a C average, and meets income and asset requirements, is eligible to receive Cal Grant money to attend a community college, a Cal State, University of California or private campus.
Income eligibility depends partly on family size; for example, students from a family of four may be eligible if the household earns no more than $66,200 a year, according to Carole Solov, spokeswoman for the California Student Aid Commission. For next year, those grants are set at $8,832 for independent colleges, $3,834 for a UC school and $1,572 for Cal State. But those numbers will rise if fees are increased, Solov said.
Joy Y. Chen, deputy mayor who is leading the Los Angeles Free Cash for College program for Mayor James K. Hahn, said Saturday's event is intended to help a wide array of families. Counseling will be available in Spanish, Armenian, Cantonese, Mandarin, Persian, Korean, Russian, Tagalog and English.
"Having a Cal Grant can make the difference between going or not going to college," Chen said.
Tamara Coyle, 17, of Redlands East Valley High said she wants to attend Riverside Community College and then transfer to a Cal State campus to study teaching and nursing, but all of the application questions about income and eligibility seem like a foreign language.
She said she is grateful that there are programs, teachers and volunteers who are pushing students to apply.
"A lot of people need financial aid, but they don't know how to get it, so they just don't bother," she said. Without help, "I wouldn't fill the forms out."
More information about the Los Angeles initiative is available by telephone at (213) 978-0721 and on the Internet at www.lafreecashforcollege.org.
For statewide information, call (866) 476-8787 or go to www.californiacollegegoal sunday.com.